'Teflon' Governor Must Tackle Colo.'s Budget Shortfall

Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper i i

hide captionDemocrat John Hickenlooper gives the thumbs up to supporters in Denver last November after winning the election.

Chris Schneider/AP
Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper

Democrat John Hickenlooper gives the thumbs up to supporters in Denver last November after winning the election.

Chris Schneider/AP

In Colorado, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper became Gov. Hickenlooper on Tuesday.

One of the first issues he faces is a budget shortfall that could reach $1.5 billion, which is about 20 percent of the state's general fund budget.

Hickenlooper came into politics after a successful run in the restaurant business. And today, his public image is just about as amusing as his name. His political ads get much of the credit for that.

In 2005, he sky-dived in support of a tax reform measure. And this past election, when the airwaves were packed with attack ads, Hickenlooper was shown jumping in and out of a shower, fully clothed. He said every time he saw a negative ad, he felt like he needed to take a shower.

Hickenlooper at a Glance

  • Born Feb. 7, 1952, in Narberth, Pa.
  • Graduate of Wesleyan University
  • Member of the Democratic Party
  • Mayor of Denver from 2003 to 2011

 

Hickenlooper could afford to take a risk with his ads in this past election because his two conservative opponents split the vote, giving him an easy win. But Hickenlooper's image and his style of governing could become important as state leaders tackle Colorado's looming budget gap.

"I think he has a little bit of the Teflon that Ronald Reagan enjoyed," says Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer. "Things sort of slide off of him, and I think that's largely because he's very affable, slow to anger, and I think that makes him particularly effective."

Hickenlooper's effectiveness will be tested, though.

A Budget In Crisis

The state already had to use cuts and creative juggling to balance its budget. Federal stimulus money is running out, and Colorado's expenses will rise faster than revenue in coming years.

As a Democrat, Hickenlooper also faces a reinvigorated Republican opposition. The GOP took control of the lower house in the state General Assembly in November. The new speaker, Republican state Rep. Frank McNulty, is a conservative who talks about making government live within its means.

"The savings account is gone. The rich uncle that has been giving us money is not there anymore," says McNulty. "The circumstances dictate a much higher level of belt tightening than they have even in the past."

No one is talking about tax increases in Colorado.

There are a variety of constraints voters have put on political leaders over the years that make it difficult for them to do much aside from making cuts. And that's going to hurt. Already, one-third of the school districts are on four-day weeks to save money, higher education funding in Colorado ranks near the bottom of some lists, and there's a backlog of infrastructure projects.

The Mr. Nice Guy Strategy

Hickenlooper's strategy to deal with all this: Be a nice guy. He says that's a lesson he learned in childhood that he will employ at the state Capitol.

"My dad died when I was a kid, and I had a year in elementary school where everybody hated me," says Hickenlooper. "I just kind of shot off my mouth, and I was just trying to make people like me, but I did all the wrong things."

Hickenlooper says his mother created a chart, and every day when he got home from school, she asked him if he'd said anything mean behind someone's back or been disrespectful.

''I'd get either a gold star, a silver star or a red star," says Hickenlooper. "And it made me think about how you relate with people and what it is that aggravates them."

Hickenlooper says he'll spend a lot of time listening to people, trying to figure out what they really want — "and try to find where is that sweet spot where, perhaps, no one is perfectly happy,'' he says. "But everyone feels that they've gotten most of what they need.''

Given Colorado's fiscal crisis, while Hickenlooper may hope for a gold star, he may be lucky to get a silver.

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